A Lesson In Slowing Down
A Challenge in The Scottish Wilderness | by Richard Smith
I lay my head down on my rolled up puffer jacket and closed my eyes. In my tent, soaked, exhausted, wondering what the hell I was doing here. I lay back and dreamt about my bed and getting back home, if Scotland didn't break me first..
A couple of months earlier I saw an ad online, win a place on the The Great Outdoor Challenge (TGO). A competition to spend two weeks walking 200 miles across Scotland. A couple of days later I received an email and I now had a few weeks to plan a route. A 14 day coast to coast walk across the length of Scotland, with a pretty limited knowledge of most of it. After a lot of procrastination, I pretty much ran out of time to plan. With a start point and a finish I lay out the maps and filled the space between with places i knew and others I had heard about. A couple of weeks later after speaking to friends and previous challengers and with help from the TGO staff and their seemingly never ending knowledge, my route was ready. I printed each section of the route off and lay it out across the floor like a big puzzle, I walked alongside it imagined how it would be, the mountains, rivers and the places I would sleep each night. I knew the biggest challenge ahead wouldn't be the physical side of walking long distances every day, but doing all of that on my own. This wasn't unfamiliar ground though, I had spent the previous three years training in the mountains whilst living and working in the outdoors. The TGO felt like the perfect chance to put my skills to the test, and doing it on my own meant no-one else to rely on.
Starting off it became obvious that I had packed too much. Probably a common mistake for first timers and I was no exception. By the end of the first day I had my spare shoes hanging around my neck, my camera tied to the waist loop on my bag and batteries and food stuffed into pockets. Anything to keep the weight off my back. Like most people who spend a considerable amount of time in the mountains I'd like to think I'm pretty good at managing myself in these situations, but two, three, four day trips as I found are a little different to two weeks.
I stood on the side of the road in Torridon on the west coast of Scotland and hauled my bag onto my back. The first half of the trip looking back is almost a blur. Torridon, Loch Carron, Glen Affric, Fort Augustus and The Monadhliath Mountains. Paths, roads, forests, pylons, lochs, deer, ticks, food, sleep. During those first few days I lost sight of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I became obsessed with the idea of finishing and getting back home. The mountains and the names of the towns and lochs were merely way markers to the end. On my second day I walked 50k and did two of my days in one hard push. The idea of being a day ahead seemed like a good thing, a day closer to being home. I did that twice, by the time I got to The Mondaliath Mountains I had pretty much pushed myself to breaking point. I slept on one of the few patches of snow left in the spring thaw, just to avoid ticks. I hardly ate and didn't drink anywhere near as much water as I should have. Fed up I filtered dirty water through my cleaning sponge before purifying it to drink. Battered by days in the rain and cloud, walking on bearings for two days through peat bogs, I'd had enough. I headed down off the mountain and pitched my tent in a ditch, by a river, behind a farm. Seriously weighing up the pros and cons of carrying on or going home. After a phone call to back home and some caring words I forced myself to eat and drink. I lay my head back on my rolled up puffer jacket and listened as mice searched for scraps of food outside of my tent.
The next day I opted for an arduous walk along roads to reach Aviemore. Arriving at Aviemore was a turning point in the trip. When I got to the campsite I rushed to the reception to collect to parcels I had sent to myself, my next set of maps and food and supplies for the second half of the trip. Only thing was, it wasn't there. Complications at the post office meant I was left high and dry in Aviemore with not much motivation and no maps or food. Its funny how its only once everything that could go wrong does go wrong, that you stop caring as much. I lay in my tent laughing at the situation, its only an adventure when things go wrong, right? Faced with either giving in and finding the next train to Keswick or getting to the shops before they closed, I threw on my trainers and flew out of the tent.
After Aviemore the trip changed. I became more aware of my mentality towards the situations I was being faced with, my impatience, and I slowed down.
What was I rushing home for?
How many more times would I get a chance to do something like this?
All questions filling up my head. One of the overwhelming themes that stuck with me throughout the trip was that no one was going to truly understand what it had been like, the things I had seen and the things I had felt. If all of this is best when shared, then why do we do these things alone? This for me was the learning point. I was finding that one of the hardest things to do is to reflect on an experience as it is happening, to be truly thankful and appreciative as it is right there in front of you.
The Cairngorms, Glen Avon, Glen Builg, Ballater, Mount Keen and out towards Montrose was all incredible. I took my time, I stopped, I bought ice cream and took photos. And then, for the first time In 9 days I met other challengers. After convincing myself that I must be the only person doing the challenge I set up my tent in Ballater and I couldn't escape them. After spending days alone wanting the company and conversation of other people, now that I had it, I missed the solitude. Over the next few days I met some truly amazing people. I shared in stories of others crossings and felt the comfort of like minded people sharing in our adventure. I'd heard a rumour that Tarfside was the place to be. I arrived with another challenger to be greeted by, nothing. Or at least so it seemed. After searching we found a small village hall and could hear a hustle and bustle coming from inside and a soft golden light was emitting from behind closed curtains. We dropped our packs on the ground and knocked at the door. Once opened we were greeted by a smiling older lady, 'are you here for tea?' She asked, and without even thinking we said yes and stepped inside. The trip was starting to get more surreal by the minute. I was now sitting around a large circle table in what seemed like someone's kitchen, my trousers stiff with peat and mud, my face red and battered by the wind and sun. As we ate we all spoke of our trip so far. The people organising the meal told me that they had heard of me, the competition winner from Keswick, and the route I was doing, the fact that I had started two days behind everyone else and had now caught up. It felt pretty good, It was probably one of the first moments when it all started to feel worth it.
The last few days felt a lot different to my initial solo crossing. Challengers knew each other from previous years and a real camaraderie flowed amongst everyone. I took great joy lying in my tent at north water bridge listening to the laughing and conversations, knowing we all had endured the same and were better for it, now with the finish line in sight.
Walking into Montrose I decided to finish as I had started, so I waited for the crowds to pack up before I made that last push to the finish. I couldn't help but feel a little surreal as I pushed in the button on a pedestrian crossing and stepped back as trucks rolled down the road and cars spluttered and coughed waiting at the lights, as I thought back to the hanging valleys of Gen Affric, alone, with nothing but deer pushing on ahead in front of me. The finish seeming a little less poetic.
Nearly six months after this trip and writing the initial bulk of this, its a lot easier to reflect and look back on my crossing. Small memories filter back, reminding you of your achievements. I remember camping in the centre of a perfect opening in Glen Builg listening to lapwings as they circled the sky above or just the simple pleasures of living simply for two weeks, moving across the land with nothing but what you carry with you.
For me it was a lesson in slowing down, in all aspects of life. It has also been a lesson in pushing myself and the people around me since. That to me is the true beauty of spending time challenging yourself in the outdoors, it gives you purpose. As Audrey Sutherland says, 'Go Simple, Go Solo, Go Now'.